Gilbert & George interview: 'If you go to Africa, or India, or Eastern Europe, they're killing queers'
Violence, drugtaking, dogma: there's plenty of raw material on the artists' East End doorstep. They take Time Out on a stroll down the sunnier side of their street
Thu Jul 10 2014
© Rob Greig
'Good morning,' says the George half of Gilbert & George at their front door. 'Shall we go for a walk?' Yes, we shall. It's a brilliant summer morning. Last time I met the artists, it was an equally bright day in February. Maybe they only do sunny days, so they're perfectly lit. They're instantly recognisable. Most celebrities look older, fatter, shorter, or not much like themselves in the flesh. Gilbert & George look like a better version of themselves: like any good artwork, reproductions don't really do them justice. They have similar (but not exactly matching) suits and ties. George wears a panama hat that a conservative country parson might consider staid. Gilbert wears a flat black felt cap, which highlights his Italianness (he's originally from the Dolomites). He points at the pointy railings in the street. 'We use these in our work a lot,' he says. 'As tribal spears,' says George.
A tribe of two, Gilbert & George have been art world fixtures for 45 years, and have lived on Fournier Street, between Christ Church Spitalfields and Brick Lane, for all of them. From the beginning, their work has challenged and occasionally charmed. 'I really hope you don't succeed,' said their tutor when they left St Martin's School of Art in 1970. 'But I rather fear you will.' They manage to be both popular favourites and creepy weirdos. We've seen their bums, their bits, even their shits, but often they refuse to commit, offering gnomic pronouncements and elliptical references in place of definite opinions or views. By far their most successful creation has been themselves, a carefully fashioned matching pair of men who live, work and most probably sleep with each other: 'living sculptures', as they call themselves. The Gilbert & George life rituals are legendary. They used to go to the Market Café on Fournier Street for breakfast every morning for years and always have the same order. Then it shut down. The double act is equally single-minded when it comes to making art. Apart from their meals, their walks and the odd episode of 'Midsomer Murders', their days consist of work.
'The curry monopoly is over'
© Rob Greig
The artists' latest series, 'Scapegoating', is made up of 123 pieces, derived from what they observe and experience in the streets immediately surrounding their home. They want to take me to some of the locations they've used in them, and explain the changes they feel going on around them. They claim to love change, perhaps because they are always the same. I hope that it might be a way into their hermetic, self-created world, but I have my doubts. 'We're very excited that we're living in a part of London where you can see what's happening in the world,' says George, like he's reading a prepared statement. 'We wouldn't like to live in Suffolk and just see it on the television.' That may be so, but during an hour's amble, there are dark undercurrents to what they say about their manor.
Off we go. We turn left out of Fournier Street into Brick Lane. 'The curry monopoly is over,' says George, in an early contender for quote of the day. He waves his arm up the street. 'There are Italian, French restaurants. When we moved here, there were two Indian restaurants. One down there, and the Clifton. It was single Bangladeshi men, us, and the police who came in every night for a free takeaway.' It's nostalgic, a nice detail, but it's no chance reminiscence: he told the same story, word for word, in the Evening Standard in 2007. It's clear that the institute of Gilbert & George is meticulous in its archiving.
'Dalston is the place now,' says Gilbert, 'don't you think? Everyone is young. We go every night.' (To Mangal 2. For all you arty stalkers, that's 4 Stoke Newington Road.) 'No one goes there to dine, like us,' says George (they famously have no kitchen at home). 'They go there to celebrate and party. Amazing! They have very limited conversation: just "No way!" and "Oh my God!"'
'We like the laughing gas parties'
© Rob Greig
The pieces in 'Scapegoating' are scenes from Gilbert & George's tiny kingdom. There are mosaics of fractured tower blocks, pavement menus, cycle couriers, body armour, the Queen on her way to Margaret Thatcher's funeral and whippets. Lots of whippets. This is not some Yorkshire fantasy, but the discarded silver shells containing nitrous oxide ('hippy crack') which they find dumped in the streets by partygoers. 'It was February of last year we started to see them,' says Gilbert. They bribed street cleaners to collect them for them. 'We like them because they look aggressive, and look like bombs,' says George. 'When you watch television [news] in the evening it's all these shell cases.' In one piece, 'Sweet Air Sweet Air', a silver casing looms above a man's backpack, with an obvious suggestion of terrorism.
We take a left and another into one of London's least attractive thoroughfares, Grey Eagle Street. At the foot of a faceless wall, George scuffs around with a well-polished shoe looking for the metallic canisters. 'Ah, there aren't any here today,' he says. I suggest he should have sent one of their assistants out to scatter a few around earlier. 'We thought of that!' he says, delighted that I've bought into their manipulation of 'reality'. For Gilbert & George, the whippets are symbolic vessels: they contain mind-suspending instant pleasure, but their form hints at destruction. Both ideas are about loss of self, whether hedonistically or through violence. 'We like the laughing gas parties,' says Gilbert, 'and the frightening atmosphere.'
That 'frightening atmosphere' is right there on Gilbert & George's doorstep. Last year, American student Francesco Hounye needed 23 stitches to his head after he was attacked by a gang of Asian youths on nearby New Road. Gilbert & George say they have been verbally abused. 'We were walking with our assistant [Yu] to dinner two years ago,' says George, 'and they were shouting at us: "Get out of this place, this is a holy place! And your fucking Chink, too!"' 'They're anti-gay in a big way round here,' says Gilbert. 'Gangs going round beating up people they believe are queers.'
'If England is a democracy, we should be proud'
© Gilbert & George
Muslim extremism is hinted at in 'Scapegoating' in a predictably oblique way. Several pieces feature images of women veiled with niqabs. In 'Ahem' (right), the figures are distorted into a row of what look like giant crows behind the artists. It's a typical G&G device. Take a controversial subject and just put it out there, making it everyone else's problem. Bumholes or burkas, it's always provocative. 'I hope so,' says George. 'It's not provocative,' Gilbert disagrees, always Ernie to George's Eric. 'It's there. We don't want to have a view: we want the visuals. Around Whitechapel, it's unbelievable. It's extraordinary, because the [Muslim women] are all born here, they're all young. Speaking cockney. But they want to separate themselves. They are segregating themselves in an extraordinary way.'
Gilbert & George have deliberately stood apart from the rest of the world for five decades, so it's possibly a bit rich for them to be funny about 'segregation'. But it's that very idea of being allowed to do what you want with your life that they so jealously guard. It's a subject that highlights their respective individualities. While George remains mild-mannered and faintly ironic, Gilbert becomes increasingly impassioned. 'In many countries, you're not allowed to be different,' he says. 'Even sexual freedom. If you go to Africa, or India, or Russia, or Eastern Europe, they are all killing queers. If England is a democracy, we should be proud. It's one of the only democratic places in the world.'
'The freedoms are extraordinary here,' says George. 'In some ways it's never been better: it's a new world compared to the '60s and the '70s.' But Gilbert isn't letting it go: 'Religions are taking away the freedoms that we fought for for hundreds of years.'
Via Corbet Place and Wilkes Street, we arrive back on Fournier Street, back to square one, like the endlessly rethrashed debates around Whitechapel. If the pair see the East End as the world in microcosm, then maybe our walk has been their career in miniature. It progresses, but only to its starting point. At the end are Gilbert & George. An hour older, but otherwise unchanged. What's clear, though, from this series and from our conversation, is that they no longer take their monkish sequestration for granted. The last 50 years have been the most permissive in history for creative expression. That might be about to change. I ask George about the title of the show. 'Scapegoating,' he says, back in script mode, 'has, in recent years, become an international bad habit.' I don't know what that means, but he declines to expand upon it. On the same subject, England manager Roy Hodgson was a bit clearer a couple of days earlier: 'Scapegoats are always necessary in times of failure.' Give that man the Turner Prize!
Scapegoating is about blame and blame leads to violence. It seems scarcely credible that Gilbert & George could, quite unknowingly, nearly half a century ago, have chosen to live on what would become one of the most potent faultlines in twenty-first century Western society, but that violence of blame is nothing new. 'We were bombed by the IRA here, just across the road,' says George. 'Bombed by white supremacists on Brick Lane. The tube was bombed by Islamists.' This time, though, it might prove impossible for them to continue to remain apart from their neighbours, whether the ones off their faces on whippets or out of their minds with religious zealotry. Their greatest challenge as 'living sculptures' might be yet to come. Hopefully they won't be toppled by a seething mob like the statues of out-of-favour dictators.
'The first half of the time we lived here,' says George, 'people used to say: "Now that you're successful, when are you going to move to a nicer part of London?" The second half, they've said: "This district is so trendy, don't you want to get out?" They always want us to leave!'
Needless to say, Gilbert & George are going nowhere.
Top art features
Our critics' pick of the must-see art exhibitions in town this season
Find out what our critics make of London's new exhibitions
We talk to the biggest names and emerging talent in the art world
- Annie Leibovitz: Women
- Electronic Superhighway
- Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse
- Champagne Life
- Art and Alcohol
- Lee Miller: A Woman's War
- Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer
- Wildlife Photographer of the Year
- Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture
- The Crime Museum Uncovered